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Hayao Miyazaki

Designing the Hayao Miyazaki exhibit at The Academy Museum.


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Background, Spirited Away (2001), © 2001 Studio Ghibli
Hayao Miyazaki exhibit by Joshua White, Courtesy of JWPictures
Layout, Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), © 1989 Eiko Kadono - Studio Ghibli

Creating the first major exhibit of Hayao Miyazaki’s work outside of Japan for a newly launched museum, while dealing with an ongoing pandemic, is an intense combination of firsts. But Exhibitions Curator Jessica Niebel, and Assistant Curator J. Raúl Guzmán, accomplished that feat for the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

As the co-founder of animation juggernaut Studio Ghibli and the director behind critically acclaimed animated films like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki has become a visionary storyteller and artist. Exhibitions of his work have largely remained exclusive to his home country of Japan in places like the Ghibli Museum, which he also designed himself. But Niebel and Guzmán convinced Studio Ghibli to trust them with an exhibition of Miyazaki’s work, and the two have closely worked with the studio ever since. The Academy Museum’s inaugural exhibit provides a new opportunity to see rare production art from Miyazaki’s films outside Japan. Located in Los Angeles, California, the show opened September 30 and will run until June 5, 2022.

Niebel and Guzmán spoke with smART Magazine about designing the exhibit and using animated characters to inspire a journey-like experience for visitors.

Similar to making a Miyazaki film, Guzmán says they needed a clear vision for the exhibit and teamwork. While they determined exhibition content based on research and interviews with key Studio Ghibli staff, Guzmán and Niebel collaborated with the museum’s in-house designers to define the show’s appearance. They sent collage-like concepts of the exhibit to Shraddha Aryal, Vice President of Exhibition Design and Production at the museum. Aryal and her design team used the collages to create a floor plan that provided a journey for visitors. “Curation and design have to come together and really work hand in hand towards the same goal to make a truly successful exhibition together,” Niebel says.

Creating a journey for visitors included deciding how they would enter the exhibit. In a fitting homage to an iconic scene from My Neighbor Totoro, visitors enter the exhibit through a tree tunnel like one of the film’s young protagonists, Mei. They can even find the titular creature, Totoro, semi-hidden on the walls, waiting to be discovered. The tree tunnel was used to inspire visitors to think like Mei and feel the same playful curiosity as her while they entered. “Mei would be the one to lead us into Miyazaki’s world,” Guzmán says.

That use of character perspective applied to other areas of the exhibit, such as the last one inspired by Spirited Away. “We wanted visitors to end their journey following Chihiro, who during the course of that film really discovers a lot about herself—so we replicate it in that moment,” Guzmán explains. They also shared the perspective of the title character in Kiki’s Delivery Service by creating a space for visitors to recline and watch animated clouds on a ceiling. “We really wanted to invite visitors to lay down and change their perspective,” Niebel says. “Usually in museums you look straight at a wall. But in Miyazaki’s films, there’s a lot of perspective change, looking up or looking down.”

Film Still, Spirited Away (2001), Hayao Miyazaki, © 2001 Studio Ghibli

But curating a perspective took time to figure out. Niebel explains they originally thought they could use footage from Miyazaki’s films, but that didn’t work out. “There’s never really that perspective when someone’s looking straight up at the sky—there’s always an angle,” Niebel says. After further collaboration with Ghibli and the museum’s production team, they decided to have Ghibli Art Director, Yōichi Nishikawa, paint the clouds, and then Los Angeles-based animation studio, Titmouse, animated them. Besides a clear goal and collaboration, research into Miyazaki’s work found another area of common ground between his filmmaking and their exhibition development.

“Miyazaki believes that his films already exist somewhere, and he’s not really creating them—they’re already there, and he’s just kind of channeling them into real films,” Niebel says. “Similarly to that, I’ve always thought that the exhibition tells you what it wants to be. Your job as a curator is to listen to it and understand what it wants to be, with some sort of intuition and some sensitivity—and that is your job, much more than creating the whole thing.”